The $17.5 billion budget for the year beginning Oct. 1, will be considered and revised by the D.C. Council in coming weeks. It reflects a whirlwind turnabout from last year, when the city froze hiring and pay raises while dipping deep into reserves to cover projected revenue shortfalls during the coronavirus pandemic. This year, with projected revenue rising, hiring is back — and city employees will receive their delayed raises. With more than $2.3 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan that must be used over the next four years, Bowser also proposes extensive spending.
Among the long list of ideas included in her budget proposal: $8 million to hire on-site mental health clinicians for the more than 80 public and charter schools that do not employ any; $26 million to buy laptops and smartphones for seniors and needy families; 80 Capital Bikeshare stations — enough to put one within a quarter-mile of every home — and 3,500 new electric bikes; and construction of a “sobering center” for people to detox from drugs outside of a hospital or jail.
“In this proposal, we are using significant federal investments to provide recovery and growth opportunities across all eight wards,” Bowser said. “We should all be very proud. We have weathered the financial impacts of covid.”
The largest chunk of the federal relief funding, more than half a billion dollars over four years, would go into affordable housing, including $400 million that Bowser recently announced she would invest in the Housing Production Trust Fund. Other proposed housing spending includes $67 million to purchase buildings and convert them into permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people or subsidized housing available to very low-income residents, and $113 million to renovate and replace public housing.
In public safety, Bowser proposes increasing spending on alternatives to policing by $45 million while spending less on the D.C. police department.
Bowser’s budget would nearly triple funds to assist people released from prisons, including direct cash assistance; hire 52 more “violence interrupters”; spend $5 million to hire people considered “at risk of gun violence” to work for the Department of Public Works and $2 million on temporary housing for people involved in gun violence; and allocate nearly $7 million for behavioral health and Department of Transportation workers who can respond instead of police to 911 calls about mental illness and traffic and parking problems.
Bowser has been a vocal critic of the council’s decision last year to freeze police department hiring, which her office says led to a drop from 3,800 officers before the pandemic to a projected 3,460 by the end of next year.
The department typically hires about 280 officers per year to maintain the size of the force, Bowser’s office said; her budget proposes hiring just 135 officers next year, because city officials say the police department will need months to be ready to hire again.
Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the public safety committee chair, who led the council’s push last year to block new police hiring, said the spending plan shows that calls for alternatives to policing are being heard.
“As I look at this budget — we do see significant investment in rethinking policing,” he said. “Those things weren’t in the budget last year, but they sure are this year.”
Among capital projects — including renovating libraries, building a new employment training center for high school students, and opening a community center for LGBT residents to replace the one in the Reeves Center — Bowser proposed $20 million to build a community center with play space for children at the former Crummell School in Ivy City. That commitment would meet a years-long demand from activists, Ward 5 residents and council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), who represents the area.
Bowser had hoped to fund the project by developing housing on the site, a request the council denied in its recent amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Instead, Bowser administration officials said, the city found the funds by extending the lease on the Charles Sumner School building in Ward 2.
Most council members praised the mayor’s budget proposal and said they were pleased by its generosity in many areas, but some made other suggestions: Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) asked about exempting unemployment benefits from taxation; Allen asked about improving broadband Internet service in residences; Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) asked for more money for the troubled United Medical Center hospital; Christina Henderson (I-At Large) suggested Bowser’s idea of school shuttles for students in violence-plagued neighborhoods should include routes west of the Anacostia River, not just in Wards 7 and 8.
In an interview, Allen said that despite the city’s greatly improved financial outlook, he still plans to propose a tax increase on high earners this year, an idea he championed last year that was narrowly voted down. Federal stimulus funds will be gone in four years, and the city’s economy may not recover from the pandemic that quickly, Allen said.
“The federal dollars that have come in, they’re the life buoy,” he said. “They’re really significant and really helpful, but they’re also one-time.”
The mayor’s office noted a surprising budgetary fact in its presentation Thursday: A new paid family leave program, which funds parental leave for workers through a tax on their employers, is vastly overfunded, to the tune of more than $400 million.
Administration officials said the pandemic dampened demand for the paid leave benefit — many workers were laid off and thus ineligible to participate or were less likely to take leave while already working from home. But they also said their projections of how much the program would cost businesses may have been too high even for a normal year.
To compensate, Bowser proposes reducing the tax rate on businesses by more than half for one year, while allowing workers to claim the benefit in a wider variety of circumstances, including two weeks of paid leave to recover from sexual assault or domestic violence.